Podcast 048: Pumpkin Spice – That’s Herbalism Too!

It’s not just for lattes anymore: the ubiquitous pumpkin spice blend is in fact an herbal formula! The standard pumpkin [pie] spice mix is cinnamon, ginger, clove, allspice, nutmeg. From an herbalists point of view, this is a mix of aromatic, pungent, carminative spices, very antioxidant-rich, and most of which are also antimicrobial. In this podcast we’ll break it down and give you the details on each individual herb, as well as the formula as a whole. Spice it up!

Mentioned in this podcast:

This episode originally aired on the HerbRally Podcast – they have tons of great content over there, check it out!

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Episode Transcript

Ryn: 00:00 Hey folks, Ryn here. This week’s episode is a re-broadcast of one that originally aired about a year ago on the Herb Rally podcast. You listen to that one too, right? Well, if not, check it out. Hashtag community, not competition. We wanted to share this with you all again because…well…’tis the season… pumpkin spice season that is! But first a couple of shout outs to Ellie Vera, Leon, Danielle, Melanie, and Ash who volunteered this week to help us transcribe our videos from the online program to support a student who is presently incarcerated. Thank you so much. You guys are awesome and don’t worry, I will be getting back to you soon with new assignments. If you’d like to volunteer, just send us an email at info at commonwealth herbs dot com and let us know. Okay, here we go with the episode. Pumpkin Spice, that’s herbalism too!

Ryn: 00:55 Hi, I’m Ryn.

Katja: 00:57 And I’m Katja. We are from the Commonwealth Center for holistic herbalism here in Boston, Massachusetts. It is October. It’s October fifth and I’m super excited because it is pumpkin spice season! Some people, in fact actually not just some people, but some people possibly even in this room, don’t really get the whole pumpkin spice thing, but…

Ryn: 01:26 They don’t understand the power and the glory of the pumpkin spice.

Katja: 01:28 The power of pumpkin spice! But I really love pumpkin spice and don’t go crazy about it or whatever. There is a shirt for sale right now that says “Pumpkin Spice, Everything” which I love, but I did not purchase. So I’m not completely overboard, but I do, I do like a good pumpkin spice. They are tasty.

Ryn: 01:51 They are tasty, can’t argue with that!

Katja: 01:54 A friend of mine wrote on his facebook page a little while back that, although he himself is not a great fan of pumpkin spice, he feels that there’s so much crud going on in the world today that if pumpkin spice makes people happy, then they should just have it and be happy and they doesn’t need to like diss on pumpkin spice. But not everybody feels that way. Some people feel like the whole pumpkin spice thing is a complete mania. Other people are kind of zealous in their pumpkin spice passion. And so we wanted to talk a little bit about pumpkin spice behind the scenes. You know, let’s meet the spices, the herbs behind the flavor and talk a little bit about why some people go so crazy for this blend. And also medicinally, what are the herbs in Pumpkin spice actually doing for us?

Ryn: 03:00 Yeah. This is something we’ve done once or twice before. I had a class that I was doing around last year about the herbs in Chai and it’s actually very similar. We’re going to talk about some of the overlap where you get ginger and cardamom and often cinnamon and clove…

Katja: 03:15 Oh no cardamom…

Ryn: 03:16 Uh, no, well, not in pumpkin spice but in Chai, you know, it’s often gonna turn up there. It’s really central.

Katja: 03:21 You know, the funny thing is that when I was touch, sorry to cut you off, but when I was doing some research, the phrase came up again and again that, adamantly, there must never be cardamom in pumpkin spice because that is an unfamiliar flavor and people won’t go for it.

Ryn: 03:37 No, I think it would just make them think “Oh, this is chai spices”

Katja: 03:40 I just thought that was so weird when I read that.

Ryn: 03:44 Because chai basically boils down to if you get ginger and cardamom in there and then a bunch of other spices that you like, then people will say “Oh, you made Chai for me.” Not to give the game away on that one. But it was a similar investigation. Like, okay, here’s a flavor blends that lots of people enjoy and has lots of variations, but it has sort of a central core to it and what’s going on in there from medicinal perspective. And so your idea was let’s do the same for the pumpkin spice.

Katja: 04:10 Yeah, let’s do it for pumpkin spice!

Ryn: 04:10 So what are we talking about?

Katja: 04:13 Well, pumpkin spice is a whole lot of cinnamon and some ginger, and some nutmeg and a little bit of clove and a little bit of all spice. That combination…Presto!…It is pumpkin spice. And you know, one thing I didn’t…

Ryn: 04:33 But where is the pumpkin though?

Katja: 04:36 Well it’s called pumpkin spice because this is the spice you put on a pumpkin. And I should just note, that, pumpkin is wicked boring. It is the blandest squash there is.

Ryn: 04:47 It is no butternut?

Katja: 04:49 It’s no butter nut. I gotta tell ya. It’s boring. But it is also prolific. It’s surprising that people were looking for something to make pumpkin more palatable. It’s called pumpkin spice because these are the spices that we traditionally put onto pumpkins.

Ryn: 05:11 For Pumpkin Pie. Pumpkin spice is the same thing as Pumpkin pie spice?

Katja: 05:15 Yes.

Ryn: 05:16 Okay. Just making sure.

Katja: 05:17 Yes. But when you put it in a Latte, you no longer involved the pie.

Ryn: 05:23 Pumpkin pie spice latte.

Katja: 05:25 That’s too many. Yeah.

Ryn: 05:27 They’d be like “where’s the Graham cracker?” And the whole thing.

Katja: 05:29 Right. There are some pumpkin spice products that do actually include pumpkin puree as a part of their ingredient list. But most of them are just using this spice blend and frankly, some of them are not even using the actual spices but synthetic flavoring. But we won’t get any of those .

Ryn: 05:49 We will speak of them no more!

Katja: 05:50 Yes, exactly. Why don’t we talk for a minute about some of the mythology around pumpkin spice before we get to the herbal actions. Pumpkin spice, as a meme or as a cultural phenomenon, started in 2003 when starbucks released its pumpkin spice latte and has since then become one of the highest selling seasonal flavors, certainly for Starbucks, but across lots of different “market segments” as they would call them.

Ryn: 06:42 I guess they couldn’t trademark that one.

Katja: 06:45 No, but it is useful to note that pumpkin spice is not the only time we do this, right? Like eggnog, gingerbread, peppermint, even hotdogs and watermelon. Every season has traditional flavors associated with it. And a lot of the scientific study, or pseudo-scientific study, around why pumpkin spice is so popular, actually centers on that. We remember pumpkin pie from childhood and Thanksgiving and even if your family, maybe doesn’t have very smooth thanksgiving traditions, for some people that’s a time of “Yay my family” and for other people it’s a time of “Oh no, my family” But it is, at any rate, a time when there’s a lot of food and it’s before the big hub. It’s after the hubbub of back to school, but before the hubbub of Christmas. And so it’s kind of like in that calm center there. And so this whole idea of smelling something, we have so many emotional responses to smells, and smelling something that represents a time of plenty, a nice time,a holiday. People who study these kinds of things say that this is involved in it. There is a guy, his name is Alan Hirsch, he is a researcher who is the director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago and he published a study in a scientific journal tha,t I have a link here to, but I can’t remember the name of, so I’ll have to look that up in just a minute. His study was around the myth that pumpkin pie smell is an aphrodisiac. And so he was looking at a handful of different smells, I believe 30, and he was determining whether or not these smells actually were aphrodisiac and it did turn out that pumpkin pie came in first. Other ones black licorice and donut smells, and ironically, cranberrie smel,l which is another smell associated with Thanksgiving, though to be honest, I can’t think of what cranberry actually smells like. I just can think of what it tastes like But that one came in dead last. The Journal is the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons. So anyway, that was a pretty funny study to read through. The link is in the show notes down below. And so if you are interested you can go check that out. But I do think that it’s really funny. And again, the theory behind it is, it’s a feeling of comfort, a feeling of warmth and home and safety and all those things. So it’s like a good time to get snugly.

Ryn: 10:20 Cute.

Katja: 10:21 Alright. So let’s talk about the actual herbs behind this here. The first one is cinnamon and cinnamon forms the largest part of the formula. The very first thing I thought about that was “well of course it does.” Cinnamon is really common in most of our baked goods. There is a study that I love to reference and the link is down below. This study was done in Pakistan and they did it on people who were type two diabetic. They divided them into three groups and gave them one, three or six grams of cinnamon daily. And, for reference, four grams of cinnamon is a teaspoon. So that was less than a teaspoon up to one and one half teaspoon of cinnamon daily. They found a very significant reduction in glucose levels, but also an even bigger reduction in triglyceride levels and in cholesterol levels. So that is super interesting. And also it tracks with, with sort of traditional wisdom, right? So we didn’t have this kind of laboratory testing equipment throughout time obviously, and yet cinnamon is in all of our sugary treats. I really think that a big part of that was that people understood, on some level, observational or otherwise, that the cinnamon was helping their body to process these things. Or maybe it was just because it tasted good?

Ryn: 12:10 Why not both. How about that? Yes. Cinnamon has a lot to recommend it. It’s a pretty notable antispasmodic so it can relieve cramping and spasms, even hiccups, which I think you’ve got a story about in a moment. Cinnamon is a really powerful antioxidant and of course it has that strong scent to it. So it has a pretty high concentration of volatile compounds and those are frequently going to serve as antioxidants and have other kinds of beneficial effects for corralling inflammation in the body. Oftentimes there’s effects on the immune response that are connected to that and that’s carried through with cinnamon. When we use it herbally, there are some other qualities that we can turn to for it where it has this neat combination of being both astringent and demulcent at the same time, which is pretty rare combo that you find in a very few herbs. That’s probably less relevant to your pumpkin spice exposure, but it is something to just kind of keep in your back pocket for when you’re working with cinnamon and a little more intensively

Katja: 13:17 So I have a theory that cinnamon is relaxing to the vegas nerve specifically. And here’s how my theory plays out. So we know that it’s antispasmodic and we also know that the vegas nerve is involved in chronic and long term hiccups. And I happened to know that the only thing that I was ever able to do to stop my chronic longterm hiccups as a child, which were really, I mean epic hiccups, was cinnamon red hot candy. At that time, because this was 40 some years ago, at that time, cinnamon red hots, we’re certainly still made with actual cinnamon oil. I don’t know if they still are, but whatever. It was, it was such a thing that my mother would never let us run out of cinnamon red hots. They were literally medicine in our house because what we found is that if I put a couple of them, three of them in fact, under my tongue, that the hiccups would go away. I didn’t understand why. It was funny and it was just a quirky thing in our family. But it was a big deal. It wasn’t until, as an herbalist, I was like ” Wait a minute. Cinnamon is really antispasmodic. Maybe that’s what’s going on. Maybe there’s some relaxation action going on.” Well, yes, I think there was. And when you look at it that there’s this vegas nerve connection, then that’s really super interesting to me because the vegas nerve is so tied in with stress and fight or flight versus parasympathetic and all this other stuff. It’s becoming really popular now to talk about ways to relax the vegas nerve. And so not only do things we put cinnamon in could be identified as a category of comfort food right now, apple pie, Pumpkin Pie, whatever the treat is. It’s relaxing because it’s comfort food and we’re hitting that food reward trigger. But also there’s this significant relaxation factor from the cinnamon. So this, like, I’m just very, very excited about this. So maybe the reason that all of the “Everyone is so excited about pumpkin spice” is that everybody is so stressed out right now and they’re using the pumpkin spice as the vegas nerve relaxant and they don’t even realize… because pumpkin spice caffeinated lattes completely blows my theory out of the water, but it’s still a good theory and I’m holding onto it for a while.

Ryn: 16:07 Fair enough. So then our next ingredient in the spice blend is going to be ginger. Ginger is also a really nice antispasmodic.

Katja: 16:22 So, so double your relaxation. Double your. Yeah.

Ryn: 16:28 Yeah. So again, soothing to the gut helps everything to loosen up and feel a pleasant in there. Think about places where people will have a lot of food all at once and have a feast and let’s get some cinnamon and some ginger in there and relax things and make a little room. That’s pretty good. Ginger is also a really potent anti inflammatory. It’s not to be neglected. Ginger is in the same family as turmeric, which is a little more famous these days as an anti inflammatory and everybody likes to point at the curcumin is a unique compound that’s super powered for that kind of thing or in your unique set of compounds actually because it’s not just one chemical there. But turmeric and ginger, they’re in the same family. They have a lot of crossover in terms of their effect and their activity. Ginger is really no slouch when it comes to being an anti inflammatory and antioxidant, improving blood circulation, reducing blood pressure and of course improving digestive fire and digestive motility at the same time. So there’s a lot to recommend ginger, not just if you feel nauseous, but especially if you feel nauseous! It’s a very effective antiemetic as well. I think for some people they may like their pumpkin spice into their latte because caffeine, especially when it comes from coffee, can often lead to a bit of a digestive upset from some over stimulation. Get you some gut rumbles going on there. That’s a common problem people have with coffee. But if you get some cinnamon and some ginger and some other spices in there, they’re going to calm and relax and soothe your gut. So that’s going to relieve some of that jittery feeling. That might be one of those other things is driving you on a kind of a subconscious level to prefer that.

Katja: 18:23 Even if there weren’t any other herbs involved that’s already like awesome.

Ryn: 18:27 It’s pretty good. Yeah.

Katja: 18:29 Yeah. So already, if you perhaps might be listening to this and thinking, well, I like pumpkin spice skeptic then I mean, hey, like this is pretty great. So if you, if you don’t want to jump on the Pumpkin Spice Bandwagon, you could just call it cinnamon, ginger latte and, and just go with that. But there’s more, there’s also nutmeg. Nutmeg is another digestive stimulant by way of being warming to the system and it’s currently being studied for antiinflammatory and antioxidant properties and they’re coming back with some good or impressive results. But that’s not in any way shocking, right? Because a lot of the profile, especially with the volatile oils, is very similar to these other spices, these other heavy spices. We already know about what those can do. So if they’re coming back with nutmeg saying that it is significantly antiinflammatory and significantly antioxidant, I will say “yes, that is not in any way surprising.”

Ryn: 19:40 It is to be expected.

Katja: 19:42 Right. Nutmeg is also relaxing overall and in fact a lot of nutmeg can be sedating so that there’s not a lot in the mix. It’s a smaller portion, but…

Ryn: 19:54 And way too much nutmeg can actually be psychoactive. This is by all accounts, one of the least pleasant trips you’re ever going to take. So I definitely don’t encourage that even if you are a psycho not, but that is one of the things you’ll read and hear about it. I know some folks who’ve tried it and boy, did they ever regret it. So I wouldn’t advise that, but also not really relevant to your pumpkin spice experience, but worth discussing,

Katja: 20:23 But again, here with the pumpkin spice, again with the warming, again with the relaxing and the anti inflammatory actions. So we’re balancing that caffeine out nicely. Pretty cool.

Ryn: 20:40 Then we’ve got clove. You know, we haven’t been giving Latin names for most herbs here, but I can’t resist with clove because it’s Latin is Syzygium and that is really fun to throw around like you’re in a Harry Potter universe there. Clove is famous for a few things. On one level it can be an analgesic when it’s applied topically. That’s especially done with clove oil. And historically dentists went through a lot of clove oil because they would apply it to the gums when they were going to do some dental surgery on folks. The clove essential oil applied topically, it pretty rapidly numbs the nerves in that area. A lot of that’s attributed to one of the constituents in the essential oil called Eugenol, which is found in a number of other plants as well. But it’s pretty well researched for that effect. It’s quite potent and it can exert that. Now in a spice blend like this, the main effect you’re going to be getting from your clove is to be a warming digestive stimulant, to be a carminative, to have a profound antioxidant quality. Again, all these spices, they have this potential to reduce oxidtive stress in the body that’s really potent and realy sort of compact. You don’t need large doses of these herbs to get this effect the same way that you might need a somewhat larger amount of, I dunno, a golden rod or Dandelion to get a similar degree of oxidative reduction in the system. But you can think of these spices in their strong, powerful flavors as being indicators of their intensity of effect if you compare the potency of a teaspoon of ground cloves to the potency of a teaspoon of ground…trying to think of, I don’t know, rose petals or something like that. Just the strength of it isn’t quite on par. So that’s a signal that you can look at. These herbs, you can think of them as plants that have retained their original potency or their original intensity. And also many of these spices come from tropical regions in the world where they need to be able to resist infection and exposure to bacteria and fungi and all kinds of different things and so they need to defend themselves and we’re taking advantage of their defense mechanisms when we work with these as medicine.

Katja: 23:16 Yeah, I didn’t mention it because it’s not really applicable in a pumpkin spice application, but all of these plants also have market antifungal and antiparasitic effects as well. Now that’s going to be topical. That’s going to be whether it’s topical on the skin or topical to the Gi tract and it’s probably not going to happen in the amount that you would have in a latte. But if you were including these in higher doses or including them all the time, you would see that effect as well. And again, you know, because they’re growing in regions that are, where funguses are much more common and they have to fight against that. All of these constituents that the plants are producing, they’re producing for their own health. So if a plant produces, if a plant, lives in a place where it’s going to encounter a lot of mold and a lot of fungus or a lot of other things attacking it, it’s going to create the chemicals it needs to fight those things and then we get to benefit from that. So thanks pumpkin spice herbs. Yeah, appreciate that.

Ryn: 24:31 So there’s one more in the sort of standard pumpkin spice blend and that’s allspice. And allspice is really similar to these others. You know, it’s a warming digestive stimulant. It has a high antioxidant value to it. It’s nature is warming and drying and tonifying and that’s shared with pretty much all these others. I mean the cinnamon and ginger are warming and relaxing in their nature. The cinnamon can be moistening depending on how you apply it. These other herbs are all kind of warm, dry and tonifying in terms of their basic energetic qualities. So they allspice is fairly mild compared to clove, but it does have a nice flavor to it and it kind of rounds out the blend really well.

Katja: 25:15 So what we end up with here is five spices. That was five, right? Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Yes, great. We ended with five spices that are relaxing, antispasmodic and that are warming. And that’s perfect for Fall, because Fall is when the bustle is starting to increase and the temperature is starting to decrease and everybody’s very excited to get out their sweaters and scarves, at least in this part of the country, and everybody’s very excited to start snuggling their warm drinks. So you take all that and put in something that smells nostalgic and smells familiar and comforting and has these awesome relaxant and warming effects, then no wonder it’s so popular.

Ryn: 26:16 Hopefully now you can appreciate some of the medicinal value of the herbs that make up this blend. And next time you’re sipping a pumpkin spice…whatever… you can think about these herbs, not just as flavor, but also as medicine.

Katja: 26:34 And you don’t just have to sip your pumpkin spice everything, we’re also including a recipe down in the links for Paleo, gluten free, dairy free pumpkin spice muffins, and we have ours right here and we will be munching on them as soon as we stopped talking. But it’s a great recipe, if I do say so myself. So try it out. Make yourself some pumpkin spice muffins and there is actual pumpkin in the pumpkin spice muffins! Make yourself some pumpkin spice muffins. Have a nice Pumpkin latte and have a great Fall day!

Ryn: 27:14 Catch ya next time.

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